Home > For Host Families > So you want to be a host family? Everything you need to know about the big decision

So you want to be a host family? Everything you need to know about the big decision

Hosting can be an enriching, life-changing experience, but not one that families should consider lightly. Inviting a relative stranger into your home for an entire year takes a huge leap of faith. It can be exhilarating,  emotional, stressful and perplexing… sometimes all at once. Take all the following into consideration before making the big decision. Hopefully hosting will be right for you and your family!

Are you prepared to:

  • open your home and family to a (relative) stranger for a year?
  • take in a student FOR FREE?
  • feed an extra mouth at the breakfast/dinner table?
  • treat your exchange student like a member of the family?
  • troubleshoot potential cultural differences, homesickness, clashes between resident children & the student?
  • attend two mandatory orientations — one before the student arrives, one right before they go home?
  • transport your student to/from local activities (or arrange transportation for them)?
  • support, emotionally, a young person who is living far away from home for a long time?
  • be open-minded about your student’s lifestyle, instead of simply expecting them to conform to yours? (cultural exchange is a two-way street)

What kind of time commitment are you looking for?

So you think you can handle what it takes to be a good host family? Wonderful! The next essential question: how long do you want to host? There are four typical program lengths – one month & three months* (short-stay) and six months or a year** (long-stay).

Many families balk at the idea of a whole year. Better sign up for a short-stay program, or a semester, they think. Here’s my question for you: what do you want to get out of hosting? Do you want to dip your toes in culture and have an international guest in your home? OR do you want a full immersion experience, and to gain an international family member, for life?

If your answer is the latter, take a leap of faith and go for the year-long stay. Rest assured: it’s not *actually* a year. “Year-long” exchange students actually stay for the duration of a typical school year. So on the short end, they’ll be with your family 9-10 months. Some students and families want to prolong the experience, and the student may end up staying closer to 11 months.

But perhaps the shorter periods are for you. That’s fine! With short-stay, especially one month or less, be prepared to act more like a welcome wagon — your student ‘s exchange is likely more akin to a vacation, and you will be “showing them the sights.” Plus, if they are with a group, you will need to transport them to and from activities. A three month student will have more time to get around, so there will be a little less of that.

Semester students are exactly like year long students, in that you should incorporate them into your family, and not treat them like a guest. Beware: you may find they are set to go home right when you were starting to think you can’t live without them :). In some cases semester students can change their mind and stay for the whole year. Be prepared to have that on the table.

*Rotary offers three month hosting periods. It is “short-stay” for the family, but is a long-stay program for the student. **Long-stay students don’t actually stay for one calendar year. They are with you for 9-10 months; approximately one full school year.

Understand that you don’t get paid

Host families in the United States DO NOT GET PAID. Some short stay programs and programs with students on F1 visas can pay their host families, but students traveling on traditional, J1 visa programs cannot legally compensate host families.

Why would I host a student and not get paid, you might ask? If you’re honestly asking that question, and cannot think of one reason why you’d host otherwise, you probably are not a good candidate for hosting. Do host families give a lot of themselves to students, for free? Yes. But they get so much back — cultural understanding, personal satisfaction, feeling good about doing a good thing, and often a lifelong friend, sister/brother, daughter/son. And that is priceless.

Why can’t host families be paid? Because they used to, and in some countries they still are… and when host families are paid, it increases the instances in which unscrupulous people take in students for the wrong reasons. Think about it — if the only reason some people want to host is for money, it’s only a short step to neglecting, abusing and mistreating that student because the family only sees them as  a meal ticket. Paying host families = bad.

Most organizations now have online applications

The application and vetting process

It has become increasingly important for organizations to properly screen and vet host families before allowing minor children into their homes. It used to be you could agree to host a student and have them in your home a few days later. Not anymore. Host families must go through a series of steps to be clear to host. They must:

  1. fill out an application (typically 3-6 pages) describing their family, hobbies and reasons for hosting
  2. provide three references – one professional, two personal
  3. fill out and pass a background check (all household members over 18)
  4. submit to an in-home interview, where all family members must be present
  5. submit or allow to be taken photographs of your home (living room, kitchen, student bedroom, student bathroom, outside of the house)
  6. have a local high school that agrees, in writing, to enroll your student
  7. have a local coordinator within 120 miles
  8. have room to host an exchange student
  9. show financial ability to host an exchange student

The most time-consuming and arduous tasks host families typically take issue with is the long application, background checks, coordinating the interview and allowing their home to be photographed. Let me put any potential fears to rest regarding your personal and confidential information: only qualified employees of the exchange organization will see your background check information, your references and the photos of your home. Usually the person who see this information is high up, and they will not share it with the local field staff or the students. The home photos are for additional quality control after some incidents with home quality occurred in 2009.

Don’t be overwhelmed by the home interview, financial questions or the photos. You don’t have to be rich to host, but coordinators & organizations are looking for red flags that would disqualify some families. They are:

  • any felony convictions
  • no DUIs within the last five years
  • if a family lives in Section 8 housing, is on food stamps or welfare
  • if a home is too cluttered and dirty for a student to safely live there
  • if a family is hosting for the wrong reason (such as wanting a maid, babysitter, to convert them to Christianity, etc.)
  • that the family is in good standing in the community — no concerns from the school, past allegations of abuse
  • that the neighborhood & school district in which the family lives is safe for an exchange student

A majority of host families pass the screening process, though occasionally there are hurt feelings and frustrations because a family is disqualified for a reason they disagree with (the DUI rule is a big one). Some organizations are stricter than others, and the best organizations are the strictest (ie: act solely in the interest of the safety of their student, and go above and beyond State Department regulations).

Please note — local coordinators go through an identical screening process.

Finding the right student

When you sign up to host, you’re not signing your life away — they don’t just drop some stranger off on your door step in the middle of the night. Picking the right student for your family is incredibly important. Not all students and families are compatible, and a mismatch can lead to problems that wouldn’t otherwise happen with the right match.

There are people at the exchange organization whose job it is to help you find the right student — on the local level, it’s often the local coordinator, and at the organizations, the title varies, but generally your first contact at the agency will be the person who knows student applications like the back of their hand. Here are some of the things you should consider when looking for a student:

  • gender (male or female)
  • age (younger vs. older)
  • nationality
  • English level
  • hobbies
  • natural family style
  • religion/willingness to attend church
  • dietary restrictions
  • allergies
  • general lifestyle

Create a welcome sign for the airport -- it makes for a great first photo op!

Some of these are more obvious than others – girl vs. boy, Japanese vs. Dutch, though even within these parameters, there are nuances. Proffi tip: older students (17, 18) from Asian cultures (Thailand, China, Japan) are often better fits for retired couples, older single hosts or families looking for a more laid back student. Students from these cultures typically don’t join a host of extracurriculars and expect their host family to transport them everywhere. They are family-oriented and will enjoy spending time at home. So as a family you may have your heart set on an active Swedish girl, but she may not be the right fit for your lifestyle. That said, there are exceptions to every rule, and things should be considered on a student-to-student basis.

What do I mean by “natural family style”? Read the student’s application closely. You can usually tell those students who have responsibilities at home on par with that which you expect in your own home – do they mention having to do chores? Having to be home by acertain time? How do they describe their relationship with their parents? If you know you are strict, don’t go for a student who makes it clear they are best friends with their parents and have no rules! Disaster waiting to happen.

Proffi tip: DO NOT CONTACT YOUR EXCHANGE STUDENT UNTIL YOUR REP GIVES YOU THE GO-AHEAD. Your organization should not provide you with student contact information until you are fully screened and vetted, and you’ve chosen the student, but things happen (and your teenagers are crafty with Facebook). It is very important you don’t contact your student until your organization tells you you may. This is for a variety of reasons, the first and foremost being: you do not get to “shop” for an exchange student like you would a pair of pants. You don’t get to “try them on” and then decide they don’t fit you. Exchange students are human beings, and are still children, really. Nothing stings more than the feeling of rejection of a host family who contacted you, asked you a bunch of questions, and then changed their mind.

I will go into more detail about looking at student applications in a separate series of posts — there’s a lot of nuance, and places where you, the American host family, will need to be open-minded and not “judge a book by it’s cover.” More on that later. But in general, consider these big factors listed above.

On English language level

All exchange programs have a minimum English language requirement that students must meet to participate. How organizations determine language level differs, but the general standard is an “oral skill” scale and a SLEP examination — Secondary Level English Proficiency. You should ask your exchange organization how they measure oral competency — what is the minimum on the scale, and what is the max. Most organizations only administer SLEP tests to students from countries that are known to have lower proficiency in English – countries in Asia, Latin America, parts of Europe (Italy, Spain, Switzerland).The minimum SLEP score to participate is typically 40. The highest a student can score is 65.

Generally, students from Western Europe have the highest proficiency in English, and students from Asia the lowest. Bear in mind how much work you are willing to put into helping your student learn English. Families interested in Asian students should be prepared for a rougher first few months, but also extreme satisfaction from their student becoming fluent.

Before the student arrives

At this point, you’re a fully screened family, you’ve been communicating with your student, and you’re really excited for the big arrival day. There’s one mandatory step that must be taken anywhere from one month, to a few days before your student’s arrival — the host family orientation. The style of this orientation, and its name, will differ according to exchange organization, but the important thing: it is required by the State Department. You may be asked to attend an event orientation, a gathering of all the host families in the area, at a set date and time, or your local coordinator may schedule a time to come to your home and go through the HF orientation check-list. If this doesn’t happen prior to your student arriving, your exchange organization is NOT doing their job. Important distinction: your host family interview and your orientation are NOT THE SAME THING. If your organization tells you they are, they are cutting corners and that is not acceptable.

Throw a BBQ welcome party for your student, and invite all the neighbors!

Here are some other things you may want to prepare before your student arrives:

  • prepare their room with nice details — put up a poster of their favorite show, film or band; print out any photos they’ve sent you and frame them; paint the room/get bedding in their favorite color
  • if they are arriving after your school’s pre-registration/open house day, collect the materials from those events that they may need, including school supply lists.
  • plan a welcome party and invite family, neighbors and teens from the community — most student arrive in the summer, so a BBQ or pool party are great ideas
  • make a fun airport sign to welcome them with!
  • buy a dictionary that is their language & English (i.e.: a German to English, Spanish to English, etc.) that’s ready when they arrive
  • create a welcome basket/gift with some of the essentials they’ll need — phrase book, essential toiletries (deodorant, soap, shampoo, conditioner, sunscreen if you’re in the South, etc.), perhaps regional specialties.
  • email/communicate with them before they arrive to coordinate things like – will they bring their own cell phone, or do you want to add them to your family plan? (I have thoughts on this) Are they bringing a laptop?
  • check with your school to see if they will assign your student an “ambassador” who can show them around school, help them find their classes, introduce them to people, etc.

Are there any experienced host families reading this who have other great ideas? Please share them in the comments!

The first few weeks your student is in your family are critical, a topic which I will discuss at length in a later post.

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